We are a society of overconsumption. We have too many belongings – so many that we lose track of them, buy multiples of the same item and find pots in our garages, forgotten shoes on cupboard floors, duplicate utensils tucked into pantries and unidentifiable objects spilling dangerously from closets like Fibber McGee’s. We hold onto artifacts well past their expiry date: clothing that no longer fits, every scribble our children ever brought home, yellowing class notes from long ago and more and more and more. We are buried in stuff.
Marie Kondo, a professional Japanese organizer, has attained cult status. Her method of sorting, purging and storing is the most recent of a panoply of systems designed to help us pare down and refine our possessions, and then stow them neatly and logically. Organizing gurus come up with gimmicks to help us part with things: throw out any garment not worn for two years, hang clothing backwards, keep only what sparks joy.
While my home is reasonably organized and kept lean by a husband who believes in disposing of anything not touched for, say, 20 minutes, I was recently made aware that it does not seem as organized as I thought, at least to some onlookers. A renovation necessitated moving our belongings temporarily out of our home. It was an impetus to sort through what we had and to purge some of it. Still, our mover sat me down and urged me to unload things, not to “leave it for the kids” to do. So did the handyman doing post-reno touch-ups. Both reacted not to any specific items they thought were excessive, but to the sheer quantity of cartons carried out of, and then back into, our home.
Welcome to a Jewish home. I imagine Marie Kondo imploding if she ever confronted the multiple sets of dishes, pots, silverware, utensils and other items that make a kosher home viable. Gather together in one place all items in a category? Categories such as things you eat with, things you cook with? Puh-lease!
The heart of a Jewish home is its kitchen. But the heart has two chambers, and if one of them represents food, the other represents books. It was the declutter guru’s pronouncement about books that convinced me that Jewish homes don’t yield themselves to her methods. In an episode of her Netflix series, Kondo insists that a home should have no more than 30 books, tops.
My movers would agree. Although warned in advance of the many book cartons, they kept asking me what kind of business I ran, insisting that the cartons contained my company’s files. The boss tried to give me advice about how long to retain records and when I could safely toss files. “No, not files,” I kept telling them, “books.”
For a professor of literature and Jewish studies, books are a professional necessity. They are also a love of mine. My colleague Michael Brown often says that when students see the walls of his home lined with bookshelves, they learn something important about the place of reading in our lives.
But not only professors have impressive libraries. Books are the lifeblood of any Jewish home. Thirty books? A decent library of Judaism and Jewish culture spills over into several bookcases. These are not trophy volumes or coffee table books, carefully curated to project an image of oneself. No, these are books one reads, consults and returns to. Even in small quarters with little room to spare, people squeeze in spaces for growing libraries.
My husband likes to invoke comedian George Carlin’s routine on stuff: “Have you noticed that their stuff is s–t and your s–t is stuff?” The organizational experts can compact your belongings because they have no investment in what you hold onto. That’s their strength, but also their weakness.